SALT LAKE CITY — A website and advertisement campaign launched this week is taking aim at rescinding Bears Ears National Monument, emphasizing the impact the monument has on San Juan County residents.
The website, rescindbearsears.org, created by the Stewards of San Juan County and the Sutherland Institute, focuses on how the monument negatively impacts those living near it.
“Local voices are the most important voices in this debate because no one has to live with the land management decisions that are made around the monument like the people who actually live in the area have to,” said Matt Anderson, a policy analyst at Sutherland Institute.
While there has certainly been plenty of debate, Anderson said residents in the area continue to have their voices silenced. The campaign focuses on various aspects of life in San Juan County and strives to give the citizens a voice.
The Sutherland Institute began filming last April — well before the monument was designated in December, and some of the videos were posted prior to the designation. One video features Navajo tribe members living in the area and their cultural rituals. Another video, posted on Sept. 30, features a San Juan County school board president, Debbie Christiansen, who says the monument will create a larger strain on schools in the county because of its struggle to generate revenues for the education system.
A 30-second advertisement, which begins airing on Wednesday, features children from that area discussing their dreams and aspirations before cutting to a girl who asks, “but when someone takes away your land and livelihood, can you really be anything you want to be?”
In fighting to repeal the monument, Boyd Matheson, president of the Sutherland Institute, said those in San Juan County would do a better job protecting the land than a federal agency run in Washington, D.C. since it impacts them more than it would anyone else.
“To some people, this argument about Bears Ears is about land and land management,” Matheson said. “But for the Utahns that live in San Juan County, this is their whole world. This is their future, and no one is going to take better care of that land than they will.”
Advocates for the monument have supported the protection of the land and the Native American relics within the grounds of the 1.35 million-acre area saying it could also boost tourism to San Juan County. The Bears Ears Commission, a newly formed tribal advisory commission comprised of one elected official from each of Utah's five tribes, sent a letter to newly appointed Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke last week saying rescinding the monument would have negative effects.
"From our standpoint, any such actions would be absolute tragedies in terms of impacts on our people today and the eternal values and traditions of our many generations of ancestors," the commission wrote in the letter.
However, opponents of the monument designation argue that it will change access previously allowed in the area including land grazing, woodcutting and herbs that Native Americans grab from the land for ceremonies, as well as being able to maintain a healthy economy in one of the poorer areas of the state.
While Native Americans were told they would not lose those land accesses, Matheson said similar promises in neighboring areas were eventually broken and he expects the same will happen at Bears Ears.
“It’s not just livelihood, it’s cultures and the history that’s going to be impacted,” Anderson adds.
Anderson said national monuments have created population and economic instability in neighboring counties because access to land has been cut. He said opportunities for ranchers in the area are helpful for the economy and tourism should not be “the only answer.”
A recent example of this is the government shutdown in 2013, which included the closure to access national parks and monuments. The state of Utah paid to keep those parks running until the shutdown ended.
“If there are no other industries to bolster (the economy) when there’s a shutdown — or even the recession in 2008 when the tourism industry took a huge hit, there have to be other industries that pick up the slack when tourism is not doing well,” Anderson said.
Bears Ears National Monument hasn’t just been a polarizing topic in southeastern Utah, it has been one across the state and even outside it since former President Barack Obama designated the monument on Dec. 28.
Utah lawmakers passed a resolution in February to unravel the decision. That, in turn, led to a backlash from several outdoor product companies that are supportive of the monument designation. Due to the resolution, on Feb. 16, Outdoor Retailer announced that it would not consider Utah as its location for future trade shows, which had generated $45 million for the state annually. That came after several retailers, led by outdoor clothing company Patagonia, announced it would boycott the retail show because of the state’s push to rescind the national monument.
In an open letter to Utah, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard said outdoor recreation generates $12 billion in consumer spending and 122,000 jobs in Utah. He wrote in the letter that he found Utah’s fight to repeal the national monument troublesome to outdoor protection and the outdoor industry.
“(Utah Gov. Gary Herbert) created a hostile environment that puts our industry at risk,” Chouinard wrote in the letter posted on Jan. 11. “The outdoor industry creates three times the amount of jobs than the fossil fuels industry, yet the Governor has spent most of his time in office trying to rip taxpayer-owned lands out from under us and hand them over to drilling and mining companies.”
A rich man’s playground should never come at the expense of a working man’s home. ... The simple fact is, this is not their home. The people of San Juan County live here. They have to live with the land (management) consequences that are made." — Matt Anderson, policy analyst at Sutherland Institute
Anderson said he believes the companies fighting against rescinding the monument are still falling short of taking the residents of the area into consideration.
“A rich man’s playground should never come at the expense of a working man’s home,” he said. “For these environmental groups, we encourage and we want them to use our public lands, but the simple fact is, this is not their home. The people of San Juan County live here. They have to live with the land (management) consequences that are made.”
Matheson added that the group hoped to persuade Zinke that the monument is not necessary. He said he anticipated Zinke would visit the area “soon.”
There is also a concern, Anderson said, that the federal government cannot cover the costs of protecting the land. An increase of tourism comes with an increase of costs to protect tourism.
Of course, it could be an uphill battle for those behind the project since no president has rescinded a designated monument since the Antiquities Act was enacted in 1906; however, there are examples of presidents who have shrunk the sizes of monuments.
The project to repeal the monument, if successful, would make history. However, those behind the project to rescind Bears Ears National Monument believe it’s certainly possible.
“One has to believe if you have to create a monument, you have the power to destroy and more importantly, one president’s orders and policies can’t dictate future presidents’ policies,” Anderson said. “That’s why we have elections — so things can change. … While there has to be some legal action taken for rescinding it completely, we believe there’s reason to believe that can happen.”